On January 13, 2015, a well known Tamil writer, Professor Perumal Murugan announced his decision to stop writing in a Facebook post.
He was under tremendous pressure from Hindutva organisations and caste groups. He came under attack for his novel Madhurobhagan in 2014, though the novel was first published in 2010.
Madhorubhagan is a fictional account of a poor, childless couple, and how the wife, who wants to conceive, takes part in an ancient Hindu chariot festival where, on one night, consensual sex between any man and woman is allowed.
Murugan explores the role of oppressive patriarchal and caste laws of a community in tearing the couple apart and destroying their marriage. Murugan does alludes to actual places and communities. He originates from the same area and community and historians do agree with him that such a custom was there in that temple as late as last century.
The Hindutva groups, who started protesting only after 4 years of its publishing, accused Murugan of distorting history. They claimed that there was never such a custom in that temple. They said that the novel defame the deity and the women of the area. They burned copies of the book and wanted the author arrested.
The district officials and the Police instead of protecting the writer tried to negotiate with the protestors. They wanted Murugan to come to a compromise with the agitators. As the threat of violence and hate went on increasing Murugan was forced to come to a written agreement of surrender of his right of freedom of expression, may be an infamous first in the whole world.
The writer had to agree to issue an unconditional apology, delete controversial portions in the book, withdraw unsold copies from the market and not to write again on controversial subjects hurting sentiments of people.
Throughly disheartened by the development he announced the very next that he has stopped writing in a Facebook post. He wrote :
Perumal Murugan, the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself. He also has no faith in rebirth. An ordinary teacher, he will live as P. Murugan. Leave him alone.
That announcement shocked the country and awakened it from slumber. A large number of writers, freethinkers, political parties and social organisations raised their voices against Hindutva censorship. There was solidarity meetings and readings from his books in many cities and towns including mine. Progressive Writers movement went to the court in support of Murugan, challenging the compromise agreement.
The author Prof. Perumal Murugan should not be under fear. He should be able to write and advance the canvass of his writings. His writings would be a literary contribution, even if there were others who may differ with the material and style of his expression. The answer cannot be that it was his own decision to call himself dead as a writer. It was not a free decision, but a result of a situation which was created…..
-The choice to read is always with the reader. If you do not like a book, throw it away. There is no compulsion to read a book. Literary tastes may vary – what is right and acceptable to one may not be so to others. Yet, the right to write is unhindered. If the contents seek to challenge or go against the very Constitutional values, raise racial issues, denigrate castes, contain blasphemous dialogues, carry unacceptable sexual contents or start a war against the very existence of our country, the State would, no doubt, step in.
-There is no doubt that the language used in the novel, especially, can be said to be rustic and a little crass. Is that by itself fatal? To our mind, the answer to this would be in the negative. There has to be something more to classify the novel as obscene per se or for requirement to delete certain parts of the novel.
-It is a matter of concern that as an evolving society, our tolerance level seems to be on the decline. Any contra view or social thinking is met at times with threats or violent behaviour.
-We may also notice another aspect that one of the substantive claims being made is that the reference to the temple and the area seeks to cast aspersions on the women of the area. The book is a novel. It does not claim to be history. In fact, the author even agreed to delete the reference to any known place, so that the protests by these groups would subside, but even that was not sufficient for the agitating groups.
-Art is often provocative and is meant not for everyone, nor does it compel the whole society to see it.
-Merely because a group of people feel agitated about it cannot give them a license to vent their views in a hostile manner, and the State cannot plead its inability to handle the problem of a hostile audience…
We conclude by observing this –
“Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.”
This wise judgement from Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana should go a long way in ensuring that in India the right of freedom of expression is protected.